1: It’s hot.  A sweltering hot summer’s day.

Three fugitives are trapped in an apartment on the twenty-seventh floor of an apartment building in Harlem.  Chris Voss, the head of the New York City FBI Crisis Negotiation Team, stands in the hallway on the other side of the door.

Yesterday, we looked at the importance of understanding the other person’s emotions in any negotiation.

And while the fugitives were silent, they were still clearly worried about two things: Getting killed. And going to jail, Chris writes in Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It

“It looks like you don’t want to come out. It seems like you worry that if you open the door, we’ll come in with guns blazing. It looks like you don’t want to go back to jail.”

For six hours on that blazing hot summer day, Chris and his team stayed relentlessly on message.  

“Now, pay close attention to exactly what we said,” Chris writes.  “We employed our tactical empathy by recognizing and then verbalizing the predictable emotions of the situation. We didn’t just put ourselves in the fugitives’ shoes. We spotted their feelings, turned them into words, and then very calmly and respectfully repeated their emotions back to them.

“In a negotiation, that’s called labeling,” he notes.

When we name the emotion, we show we identify and understand how that person feels.

“Think of labeling as a shortcut to intimacy,” Chris writes.  “Labeling has a special advantage when our counterpart is tense.  Exposing negative thoughts to daylight—’ It looks like you don’t want to go back to jail’—makes them seem less frightening.”

In a brain-imaging study led by professor Matthew Lieberman of UCLA, participants were shown photos of faces expressing strong emotion.  The amygdala, the part of the brain that generates fear, lit up.  

Then, when the people were asked to label the emotion, brain activity moved to the areas that govern rational thinking.  

“In other words, labeling an emotion—applying rational words to a fear—disrupts its raw intensity,” Chris writes.

2: Labeling is a straightforward skill.  But there are specific rules we need to follow.  “That makes it less like chatting than like a formal art such as Chinese calligraphy,” he observes.

Rule A: Detect the other person’s emotional state. “Outside that door in Harlem we couldn’t even see the fugitives, but most of the time you’ll have a wealth of information from the other person’s words, tone, and body language,” Chris writes.  “We call that trinity’ words, music, and dance.'”

Rule B: Once we’ve identified the emotion, we label it out loud.  “Labels can be phrased as statements or questions,” he notes.  “The only difference is whether you end the sentence with a downward or upward inflection.

Rule C: Labels almost always begin with one of three statements: “It seems like…” Or “It sounds like…” Or “It looks like…”

The word we don’t use?  I.

We say: “It sounds like . . .” Not “I’m hearing that . . .”

“That’s because the word ‘I’ gets people’s guard up,” Chris recommends.  When we say “I,” it suggests we are more interested in ourselves than the other person.  

When we “phrase a label as a neutral statement of understanding, it encourages our counterpart to be responsive,” he predicts.  “They’ll usually give a longer answer than just ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ And if they disagree with the label, that’s okay.  We can always step back and say, ‘I didn’t say that was what it was.  I just said it seems like that.'”

Rule D: Silence is the key.  Once we labeled the emotion, be quiet and listen.  “We all have a tendency to expand on what we’ve said, to finish, ‘It seems like you like the way that shirt looks,’ with a specific question like ‘Where did you get it?’ But a label’s power is that it invites the other person to reveal themselves.”

3: Chris’s final piece of advice: “For most people, it’s one of the most awkward negotiating tools to use.  Before they try it the first time, my students almost always tell me they expect their counterpart to jump up and shout, ‘Don’t you dare tell me how I feel!’

“Let me let you in on a secret,” he notes:” People never even notice,”

More tomorrow!


Reflection: Why is labeling so effective?

Action:  Strike up a conversation today and label one of the other person’s emotions.  Then, go silent and let the label do its work.

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